“Friends and Family” is a fairly straightforward term, but the results entirely depend on the quality of the central figure. So when Alpinestars hosted their first friends and family trackday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A few seconds after I get settled in the parking lot, a heavily modified Ford Raptor pulls up next to me. A jovial man who introduces him as Ricky gets out, and he’s full of questions from the beginning. “Do you do track days often?” The conversation meanders but he shares that he’s never done the whole crotch-rocket-around-a-race-track-thing before. He makes an off-hand comment about how I should take it easy on him – sensing that he’s a big off-road guy, I counter with “I’m sure you’d kick my ass in the dirt.” How right I was…
Embarrassingly, I wouldn’t realize until an hour later that I was talking to Ricky Brabec – America’s best chance at winning the Dakar Rally. OK, this was going to be a little bit different than the usual trackday.
Photos by Alpinestars and yours truly
I guess that’s what happens when “friends and family” refers to Alpinestars, one of the world’s biggest names in protective gear. We’re all familiar with them for motorcycle gear (on and off-road), but they also work with athletes in the automotive, karting, and cycling worlds. You’ve probably seen their casual wear and luggage, but you may be surprised to know they even make watches and “women’s contemporary wear”, but now we’re venturing into “who cares?” territory. Let’s get back to motorcycles.
This was the first time A* has hosted such an event, and the focus was bringing together friends across many motorcycling disciplines because they believe in supporting riders from all levels of motorsports. That’s according to Heath Cofran, Alpinestars’ Communications Specialist. According to me, it was an amazing playground with good friends and other people that I would love to be good friends with!
As noted in my “out of office” post, I borrowed a Honda NSR250SP Rothman’s from Iconic Motorbikes (as well as the mechanic’s pickup truck) for the trackday.
So the bike was prepped – what about me? Seeing as this was an Alpinestars sponsored day, you can probably figure out what the gear situation was. I’ve got a decade-old A* two piece suit and boots but I was provided with a GP Plus v2 Venom suit, GP Pro gloves, and Supertech R boots for the day.
My 30 second review: the suit was good and I liked the amount of stretch in the panels, though I don’t see how it stands out compared to the competition, the gloves were above average with great feel in the fingers, and the boots are probably the best in the business thanks to the separate internal boot (or what they call the “bio-mechanical ankle brace”). It’s more of a pain to put on so I’d probably be too lazy to do it except for track days, but it makes the overall boot feel much more flexible than anything else I’ve tried. I’ve been very happy with my Sidi Mag-1 Airs, but I think my next pair of boots will be Supertech Rs.
My buddy Rennie Scaysbrook at Cycle News graciously let me share pit space with him, and once I was settled in I walked around the pits to see if there was anything special. I wasn’t disappointed. Michael “Woolie” Woolaway brought two incredible machines. Number one was a Suter MMX 500. I was excited to see that the NSR250SP wasn’t the only two-stroke at Willow Springs that day – but the Suter is truly next-level. A 576cc 2-stroke V4 that produces over 195 horsepower, Ohlins suspension, carbon fiber bodywork, Brembo brakes, Akrapovic exhaust, and a wet weight of just 280 pounds!
Every time Woolie fired it up, it was a spectacle that got attention from people who already spend their whole lives around special motorcycles.
Max Hazan blew me away when he told me later in the day that he’s never spent significant time on a motorcycle with any sort of rider aids (ABS, traction control, etc).
Alex Frantz of Ducati preps a Panigale V4S. He’s incredibly nice, but I’m on self-imposed double secret probation with Ducati – I won’t ask to borrow another bike from them until I finish my Scrambler story from 5 months ago. Oops.
Eric Bostrom was ripping laps on a KTM RC390 Cup bike. He overheard that I needed a pair of earplugs and told me to go over to his pit to grab a set. These were some of the biggest names in motorcycling, but everyone was unbelievably nice.
There were three sessions – expert, intermediate, and beginner. Considering the expert group had people like Ben Spies, Josh Herrin, and Casey Stoner(!), I was content to putt around in intermediate.
But with a group like this, “beginner” isn’t the right term. Alpinestars had Nick Ienatsch and his team from Yamaha Champions Riding School out to instruct the beginner group, and Nick took a 15-passenger van out for anyone that had never ridden Willow Springs before and wanted a sighting lap. During the lap, Nick explained that the reason why this group would be so good was because of the focus they had shown to get to the top of their fields. Looking around the van, I saw people like Yamaha factory 450 MX racer Justin Barcia, and I wondered if I got an invite to the event by accident. Oh well, I was already there!
I took the NSR out for the first couple of sessions, and it was a shock. Before today, my only time on a two-stroke was 10 seconds in a straight line on a RD400. My inexperience was evident as I rode it like a four-stroke, not keeping the revs high enough through the apex to avoid having the motor fall flat. This was compounded by the fact that I had never ridden Willow Springs before, so I was spending a lot of my attention in the first two sessions just learning the track.
I quickly got better at keeping the NSR in the powerband, though the bike was physically too small for me and the constant rotation of my body required to make enough room for my left foot to shift meant I was cramped by the end of each session.
Several manufacturers (Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, and Indian) showed up with test bikes, so I figured I should try something roomier to give my hips a break. For the third session, I walked over Indian’s booth and saddled up on a FTR1200 S.
I’ve been waiting for a good excuse (like a trip to Baja) to test the FTR, so I wasn’t expecting my first time with the bike to be on a track. I know there’s some complaints about off-idle fueling with the FTR, but I obviously didn’t have to worry about that on the track. I can tell you that top speed is about 125, because that’s where I’d hit the fuel cutoff on the main straight. I can also confirm that the pegs scrape early, but that’s not surprising. The motor pulls well from down low and the transmission is great, but the clutch doesn’t feel great. It handles like you’d expect for a 500+ pound machine, though the Brembo brakes deal with the weight well. I didn’t spend any time with the fancy dash, just put it in Sport mode and tried to keep a smile on my face for as long as possible. I enjoyed my time with the FTR, but after one session on the track I was content to move on to something else. Here’s hoping I get some street time with it soon.
…or amusing Josh Herrin with the CAKE electric off-roader.
Seeing as I showed up on a 25+ year-old Honda SP model, I thought I should try the current variant – the CBR1000RR SP. The new bike stands out from its non-SP kin with goodies like an Ohlins electronic suspension and Brembo Monobloc front calipers. It was my first time on the CBR-RR SP, and I was impressed with the electronic suspension. It’s fantastic, and it truly diminished my concern with the bumpy pavement of Willow Springs.
It’s not as vicious as other literbike+ sportbikes I’ve tried on the track before (Yamaha R1, BMW S1000RR, Ducati Panigale V4S, Aprilia RSV4), but like all of those bikes, it’s faster than I’m capable of being. In such a situation, I’m more interested in a bike that’s easier to ride than something that has a 2 mph top speed advantage down the main straight – ease of use makes these incredibly capable bikes more fun, and that’s why I appreciated the CBR.
It was surreal to get time on such different bikes back to back. Riding the NSR was fun because it was a challenge – I was constantly shifting to keep myself in the powerband, drafting as much as possible to make up for the lack of power, and being very conscious of the lack of ABS and traction control. The rare times I passed someone on a bigger modern bike, I knew I had earned it. Riding the CBR was fun because it was so easy – 190 horsepower and a quickshifter made for effortless acceleration, the electronic suspension made cornering a cinch, and the electronic assists meant I could clamp on the brakes or pin the throttle without worrying about the limits of grip.
My buddy Shane Pacillo at Piaggio puts it this way – on a bike like the NSR, you enjoy exploring the limits of the bike. On the CBR, you enjoy exploring your own limits. Both put smiles on my face for different reasons!
Obviously, I had an amazing time on a variety of bikes, but my favorite moment happened after the track was closed off. I was loading the NSR back up in the truck when I heard an Australian accent. “You returning that to Doohan?”
I wasn’t sure if the unidentified voice was talking to me, so I turn around and it’s…Robbie Maddison! This can’t be right. Robbie’s a motorcycling legend – why would he be talking to me? That’s just how nice everyone was. We talked a bit about a recent trip of his to India, and I let him know that my favorite of his many videos is AIR.CRAFT:
While all this was happening, Nick Ienatsch walked by and said “now, that’s a man’s bike.” Pinch me.
Robbie and I continue to chat about India and the mysteries of life, and (without being prompted) he starts tying up the other end of the Canyon Dancer while I secure the bike. I’m stunned by this – Robbie presumably has a crew whenever he’s riding that could easily take care of everything little thing as they come up, but he’s helping a nobody strap a Honda into a Nissan Frontier. One of the things that really blew me away about motorcycling as an industry when I first got involved was how willing everyone was to help out. It seems that’s the case even at the highest levels.
If you’d rather hear from some of the bigger names, Alpinestars created a 4 minute video summarizing the day:
Special thanks to Alex Martino, Ashley Jung, and Heath Cofran at Alpinestars!